2020 was a challenging year for us all. We thought we’d write about our experience throughout the period through the ups and downs of a startup. It explains what we got up to and shares our experiences of survival for fellow startups from what turned out to be a surprisingly successful year.
In January we started the new calendar year at full speed, moving into our first ever office on January 4th. We were [were?! – more on that to follow…] located in the Future Space startup hub on the UWE campus. For reference this is a literal stone’s throw from our founders’ previous workplace, Building 3, HP Labs Bristol.
In addition we secured a commercial contract to build proofs of concept of a stadium of the future for the Ashton Gate Stadium in our hometown of Bristol. This work would prove the concepts of:
- Federated CCTV between a stadium and its local police control room.
- The federation of location services for the purpose of locating lost persons within the vicinity of a stadium.
- A resilient platform for stadium-wide programmatic signage providing soft-state recovery in the event of outages, aka WebWindows.
These opportunities gave the company a chance to grow and we took on two former colleagues as contractors to assist us to carry out the work.
With development progressing well towards the PoCs. We began planning for our demo and investor event that was to take place in May. However, events relating to the 2020 COVID-19 global pandemic were developing rapidly for us in the UK, and this had an immediate and profound effect on the company.
On the evening of March 23rd, the UK’s Prime Minister instructed its people to stay at home. By then we had looked at the epidemiological data and SIR models, Configured Things’ board of directors could see that this pandemic was not going to be short-lived. Instead, we had to rapidly draft contingency plans that would allow the company to survive the foreseeable secular economic effects that COVID would have over the company and the wider economy. Therefore we took the decision to reduce all of the company’s outgoings, thus enabling the company’s survival in the immediate to short term. We negotiated a three month 50% reduction in rental, until we finally pulled out entirely in June since, although lock-down had eased, we expected it to return.
Much like the rest of the nation we became homeworkers overnight.
Having secured the company’s short term future, we spent April adapting the PoCs to a remote-friendly format. For location-based demos, this naturally presented a challenge of how to demonstrate effectively in the confines of our homes. The CCTV demo, demonstrating the effect of remotely sharing feeds and control, transferred more naturally to remote delivery.
To bolster our chances of surviving in the medium term, we sought the aid of the recently announced de minimis grants being issued by InnovateUK to fund further development of our SharedAwareness product, however we unfortunately did not receive financing.
Around this time, the University of Bristol and Toshiba Research reached out to us, hearing of our expertise in the management of large-scale distributed systems. They invited us to form a consortium to respond to InnovateUK’s IoT Cyber Security competition.
Having been greatly impressed by our contractor, Phil Day, on his contributions towards our stadium PoCs, we asked Phil to join us as our Director of Engineering.
By mid May we had completed development on the stadium PoCs. It was now a case of performing a rigorous amount of testing; we would then be ready for our COVID-secure remote demos.
On presenting our demos to PTi, our stadia go-to-market partner, we were propositioned with the concept of using our WebWindows display management software and federated approach to create AdSpace. A programmatic digital out of home (pDOOH) automation platform enabling multi-venue inventory aggregation for automated provisioning of nationwide campaigns. We have fully specified and architected the overall solution, and are looking to turn it into product as soon as sufficient funding can be raised.
As discussed above, in March we negotiated a temporary reduction in our rental costs. With our reduced rent coming to an end and the epidemiology confirming our initial modelling; we took the decision to serve notice on our lease, placing the majority of our assets into storage.
Halfway through 2020, we picked up a substantial commercial project that a) gave us a life raft for the medium-term; and b) allowed us to build an embodiment of our philosophy. The concept of federated units of policy-constrained data sharing being used to compose smarter venues and cities, was transformed into reality.
The software processes and shares Internet of Things data collected over LoRaWAN. LoRaWAN is a low-power, long-range (2-3km in urban environments, 5-7km in rural) networking technology that utilises the unlicensed spectrum. In the project devices are owned by a set of stakeholders, their data collected by our software and then shared with other stakeholders. This sharing is according to a policy configuration that describes how the data can be transformed and by whom.
This provided us with the long-term financial certainty to remain in business and able to once again concentrate on fundraising to enter our growth stage.
With fundraising in mind, we employed the services of a graphic designer to assist us in creating a new brand and saying goodbye to our first, a home-grown effort.
We formally started the two year SYNERGIA project in November. Holding a virtual project kick-off meeting between the project’s partners: Toshiba; University of Bristol; Ioetec; Smartia; Multiple Access Communications Limited; and ourselves. We will look forward to sharing more about our work on the project over the next couple of years.
We made it! Despite what 2020 had to throw at us, we fortunately came out solvent on the other side.
What’s next for Configured Things in 2021?
Over the next couple of months we will be mentoring the seventh cohort of the National Cyber Security Centre’s accelerator. This cohort will be focusing on smart cities and connected places. We will be passing on what we’ve learned so far working with city councils and the private sector. In addition we’ll get to meet and pitch to various large 5G, smart city and connected places players.
COVID certainly had a chilling effect on the investment market in 2020. In addition, we’re aware that as a deep tech our investment cycle will naturally take longer. However, we are taking a leap of faith that post-pandemic investors will be hungry for growth; and revenue opportunities created by co-operative smart cities and connected places will make that growth possible. It is just a matter of holding our collective breath and it is certainly where our efforts will be focused in 2021.
We are actively fundraising and looking to close our A round in the coming months. If you want to join us on our journey to unlock the potential of a collaborative systems in smart cities and connected places then please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.